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May 2020

The Robert Cray Band
That's What I Heard
Nozzle Records/Thirty Tigers

Robert Cray

I started listening to The Robert Cray Band about --- well, never mind how long ago I started listening, but it’s been a few years. “Young Bob” has evolved to “Middle Aged Bob” in the duration, but he’s still making compelling music that continues to be a nearly pitch-perfect blend of soul and blues. Over the past 20 years, he’s collaborated more than a few times with Steve Jordan, whose production and other contributions gave him two of his best albums at the turn of the century (1999’s Take Off Your Shoes and 2001’s Shoulda Been Home). The pair reunited for Cray’s last two efforts as well, 2014’s In My Soul and 2017’s excellent Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.

Cray has never hidden his affinity for Southern soul music, particularly of the Memphis variety, and more than anyone else Jordan has helped him bring his love for soul and blues together about as seamlessly as possible. That’s What I Heard (Nozzle Records/Thirty Tigers) continues their musical partnership and finds Cray sounding as good as ever. The set consists of a dozen songs, five from Cray, and the covers are mostly lesser known tunes.

Cray does a dynamite job with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “You’re The One,” Don Gardner’s rousing “My Baby Likes To Boogaloo,” Billy Sha-Rae’s “Do It,” which closes the album on an upbeat note (with guest guitar from Ray Parker, Jr.), and Curtis Mayfield’s soul-drenched “You’ll Want Me Back.” There’s also a stirring read of The Sensational Nightingales’ “Burying Ground” that’s quite different from anything Cray’s ever done. The mournful “Promises You Can’t Keep” was penned by Jordan, Kim Wilson, and Danny Kortchmar for the Fabulous Thunderbird’s High Water album (which Jordan produced), and Cray makes this one his own (with a little assistance from Steve Perry on backing vocals).

Cray’s originals are equally effective. The opener, “Anything You Want," is a typically solid Cray tune that walks the line between blues and soul. “To Be With You” is an emotional tribute to the late Tony Joe White, with a truly heartfelt vocal from Cray. “Can’t Make Me Change” is an easygoing blues with a touch of jazz, “This Man” is lean and funky, and “Hot” is just that. Cray has been a consistently compelling songwriter over his career, and that hasn’t changed at all.

Some 30-plus years after his breakthrough album, Strong Persuader, which played a major role in putting the blues back on the map, Robert Cray continues to raise the bar musically with That’s What I Heard. To these ears, his music is as strong as ever.

--- Graham Clarke


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